Ricky Gervais has always courted controversy. Seventeen years after a first television appearance as an obnoxious reporter slamming “posh people with more money than sense”, his comic CV includes stand-up jokes about dead prostitutes, Hollywood-mocking Golden Globes speeches, tweets about “mongs”, and sitcoms about dwarves and the mentally challenged.
But for a comedian whose career was built on controversy, Gervais has become very keen to avoid offence. And his humour is suffering.
Gervais’s decision to enter comedy at the age of 37 suggests that, far from a driving ambition to make people laugh, it was a calculated career move. Most of the two decades prior to his 2001 breakout in The Office were spent managing bands and radio stations. A background in brand management, therefore, underlies all his comedy. This fed into The Office with great success. The mockumentary following the life of David Brent, general manager of a Slough paper company, was, and remains, hilarious. It is perfectly tuned into our collective fear of loneliness and failure. That it spawned a successful US version, a notoriously difficult feat, demonstrates Gervais’s talent for targeting shared human emotions.
The career-savvy Gervais cancelled The Office after two short series, calculating that it was better to leave fans wanting more than to have his programme peter out. Fear of his comedy being misunderstood drives Gervais like nothing else. At least, such is the impression given by his next series Extras, which might have been subtitled “the anguish of the artist”.
The first series, a self-indulgent reflection on the trials of an undervalued actor, carried some vestiges of The Office’s humour. Gervais gives good empathetic underdog. But in a more narcissistic second series, the undervalued actor transformed into misunderstood screenwriter revealed a moping, resentful Gervais. Simple, gentle comedy was relentlessly lampooned; an obsession with the pure irony of his own comedic output etched into every one of his scripted lines. One imagines him insisting on retake after retake, bleaching out the fundamental reactiveness of comedy.
The root of comedy lies in stand-up: a comedian must be able to throw caution to the wind, be funny live and respond to an audience with spontaneity. But Gervais’s talent as a stand-up is shaky. His on-stage schtick is ironic political incorrectness. But little apart from the shock effect ever seemed to hold his Animals, Science and Politics live shows together. Without the ability to cut and retake scenes, Gervais’s capacity for creating a narrative is impeded. Fans — and he certainly has those in abundance, with 8.4 million Twitter followers — nevertheless clamoured for a fourth tour. An obliging Gervais thus announced Humanity in 2013. Then in December 2014, he backpedalled — too busy producing films.
So Hollywood, with its endless retakes, scripts and fear of spontaneity, lured Gervais away from his original brand of comedy. Those notorious appearances at the Golden Globe Awards indicated the diluted form of comedy America would demand. Weak scripted gags such as, “It’s going to be a night of partying and heavy drinking. Or, as Charlie Sheen calls it, breakfast,” were never going to offend anyone important (certainly not Sheen). The Globes were an advertisement for the Gervais Provocateur brand.
This role of comic “provocateur” was one with which Gervais happily played along to launch his US career. Why else would he have appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine dressed as Jesus with the word “atheist” scrawled across his chest?
But a CV of offensive comedy threatened to hamper his TV project Derek, in which he played a dim-witted retirement home worker. In an overhaul of the Gervais brand, the comedian decided in 2012 to remake himself as king of the “comedy of kindness”, a rebranding which worked so well that Gervais has earned a spot on the Independent on Sunday’s 2015 Happy List, for making the world a happier place.
Derek was billed as a mockumentary, akin to The Office. Yet Gervais assiduously denied any hint of mockery. Derek, he insisted, was about “kindness [being] more important than anything else”. Including comedy: without the “mock”, Derek was not offensive. But it was also not funny. As one TV critic succinctly summarised, it was “sub-Forrest Gump sympathy milking”.
By forgoing stand-up for film production, Gervais has turned his back on the spontaneity at the heart of comedy. Why is he producing the upcoming Netflix film Special Correspondents? Because “having shaken up the TV industry, Netflix is about to do the same to Hollywood. It’s great to be part of the changing future.” He was made “an offer I couldn’t refuse”.
That is the soulless, processed statement of a corporate head, and it exposes Gervais for what he has become, and perhaps always was: not a comedian, but a manager—now CEO—of Brand Gervais.